Raptors

Is Kawhi the Best Player in the World?

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Coming into this series, Raptor fans were not quite sure what to expect.  They wanted to believe they had a chance to make another conference finals.  However, fans remember the past game one jitters and early playoff exits.  The bench players have been inconsistent.  Kyle Lowry has gotten to the point where a game with 14 points and seven assists is good.  Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are not holding their own against Joel Embiid.  And yet, the series returns to Toronto tied at two and there is one man making this happen– Kawhi Leonard, who may have retaken his place in the conversation for best player in the world.

Changing His Narrative

Many neutral fans have turned on Leonard these last few seasons and making the term “load management” part of NBA nomenclature has not won him any fans.  However, if that silly phrase leads to production like we are currently seeing, it is tough to argue with.  Leonard has been on a tear this season when he did play and has improved in every regard.  He is posting averages of 38 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game with shooting splits of 62% FG/46% 3PT/83% FT.  Leonard is regularly taking the opposing teams best perimeter player on defense, which is evident with Simmons’ struggles and Butler’s inconsistencies.

Leonard had a bad reputation following his rocky end in San Antonio.  While his personality is still something of a question mark, there is no questioning his effort.  He has done everything in his power to keep Toronto competitive while everyone around him has struggled.  Leonard is the only Toronto advantage that has held in this series.  He had been dropped from the “best player in the world” conversation due to the games he missed this year, but that cannot be the case anymore.  He has competition in that regard, but he has to be mentioned alongside the very best.

Best Player in the World: Old Standards

Depending on the game of the night, one of a number of players seems to stake their claim as the best player in the world.  For the first time since LeBron James took over the league, there is a real debate for who is number one.  Kevin Durant has been on a hot streak this post season, averaging 35.4 ppg and keeping his team alive against game challenges from the Clippers and Rockets while Steph Curry struggles.  Speaking of Houston and hot streaks, James Harden has put together one of the more impressive offensive seasons in recent history, posting the highest scoring average since Michael Jordan.

Best Player in the World: Up and Comers

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the likely MVP of the league, has been putting on a master class this post season, taking out the Detroit Pistons in short order and, after a brief blip in game one, seems to be doing the same to be doing the same to the Boston Celtics.  Nikola Jokic is the least discussed of the top players, but he has proven he can play more minutes than anyone and put up triple doubles the likes of which most centers could never replicate.

Kawhi Leonard can make an argument to be the best player in the world, even among this loaded group.  While Durant is improving consistently on defense, he is not on the same level as Leonard.  Leonard has the jump shot and three-point range that would put the Greek Freak ahead of all other players.  Harden cannot compare to any in this group defensively.  Jokic, while impressive, has not shown the consistency of these other players but is hot on their heels.  He may not be the leader that all teams need. In the right situation, though, Leonard is proving again that he can be the best player in the world.

Going Forward

Toronto is still locked in a heated series with the Philadelphia 76ers and will need Leonard to continue this pace if they have a chance to move on.  If the postseason holds the way it is, a showdown with the Bucks is on the horizon.  This will give Kawhi a chance to strengthen his claim as the best player in the world, or maybe when he concedes the throne to Giannis.  He is the player Toronto has needed all these years to take them over the top. The Eastern Conference Finals will be a huge test; if they get there.

That series could decide the future for the Raptors as well.  It is unlikely Kawhi will return to the team following this season. Anything less than a trip to the NBA Finals would hinder their chances of keeping him further.  Masai Ujiri has done everything in his power to build the Raptors into a title contender. Leonard has done his part as well so far.  Will Leonard be crowned the best player in the world by getting past the 76ers, Giannis and the West champion?  Or is this the final stand before choosing another future?  Either way, Kawhi Leonard is back and has earned his place in the conversation.

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